The group of students who recently returned from a trip to Russia came home with more than souvenirs; the teens said they also brought back a better understanding of world cultures and a renewed appreciation for their own country.
The high school students most of whom attend Skyview High School spent three weeks in Magadan, Russia, as part of a cultural exchange. Like the students from Magadan who visited Skyview High School earlier this school year, the students stayed with families in the town and traveled to different schools presenting cultural information. In addition, they offered a health fair for young people in Magadan and had the opportunity to learn about a foreign country and language first-hand.
For many, the experience was like stepping into a different world from the food and language to the atmosphere and behaviors.
"We were always followed by a crowd," said Skyview senior Chase Carter. "People asked for our autographs."
"The food is very different," said Skyview sophomore Rachel Beatty.
"The food was good," chipped in Chase.
"The food was not tasty at all," senior Alecia Wood disagreed simultaneously.
"We all had different experiences," explained Rachel.
Those differences extended to the students' host families as well.
Kenai Peninsula high school students pose in front of a statue at City Hall in Magadan, Russia. The students visited the city during a cultural exchange in March.
Photo courtesy of Skyview High School
Though the students stayed in houses with teen-agers who spoke English, some of the parents spoke no English, the kids said. In other homes the families were so fluent the Americans had little opportunity to practice their Russian language skills.
Regardless of language fluency, however, most of the students said communication stopped being a problem after a while and relationships built quickly.
"They're open with their feelings and emotions more than Americans are," Rachel said.
"When we left, everyone was crying. I was crying too, but they were always the first to get attached."
The most significant part of the trip, though, was the chance to see Russia first-hand, without stereotypes or preconceived notions, students said.
The fall of the communist Soviet Union may have been nearly 15 years ago, but its a change the people and communities still are learning to handle.
"They don't have public works departments in cities," Chase said.
"Under communism, the government did everything. Now the government does nothing," he added, explaining that many buildings especially schools are in a state of disrepair.
"They just don't understand that now that the government's gone, they need to do it themselves," Alecia said.
Kenai Central High School junior Kari Palm demonstrates how she brushes her teeth during a health fair that Kenai Peninsula teenagers put on for students in Magadan, Russia.
Photo courtesy of Skyview High School
The students also said they were surprised by the way salaries differed from the United States.
Doctors and teachers, for example, are on the lower end of the salary scale, while bank workers make good money, the students said.
Homelessness and poverty are common, they added.
Still, the students said they believe the standard of living in Russia is rising.
"Our teachers hadn't been there since communism (ended)," said sophomore Ali Simpson. On their teachers' advice, the students traveled to Russia carrying basic supplies and expecting no ATMs, little heat and few reminders of home.
What they found, though, was something completely different.
"It's a really Westernized society," Chase said. "Everything is starting to come there. The things that are more Western are more expensive, but people want them.
The students said the basic supplies they packed like toilet paper were in ready supply, and the streets were filled with stores, especially American outlets such as Gap.
Chase pointed out, however, that just because such products are for sale does not mean the average Russian can afford them.
"It's better for us over there, because we have dollars. Some-thing that's imported is not expensive to us, but to them it is.
"They have toilet paper, but it's probably not cheap. More products are available, but they have to pay more for it."
But, the students added, a middle class is emerging and there are more businesses.
Differences aside, though, many of the students said they felt at home throughout the trip.
"Whenever you see movies of poorer countries, you always think, How do they live like that?' said Skyview junior Travis Mercier. "I expected it to be dark and gloomy. But I felt at home, normal. The buildings may be run-down, but it's not dark and gloomy. Sometimes I had to remind myself, Oh, I'm in Russia.'"
"I really started to understand, to grasp the concept that people are the same the world over," she said. "We're citizens of the world. My host family was awesome, I felt like part of the family. I didn't want to leave."
Alecia, on the other hand, said she definitely noticed a difference between Russia and the United States and it made her appreciate home more.
"I personally learned how much Americans take everything for granted. (Russians) have a lot less money, a lot less luxuries, but they're very content, happy.
"It made me appreciate everything more, how easy we have it to be born into all the things here."
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